Reading Time: 4 mins

Gospel: Mark 4:26-34 (Pentecost 4: Series B)

Reading Time: 4 mins

In Christ, God forgives, and those He forgives He incorporates into His missiological reign. Which means He uses your congregation (and your church body) to increasingly become a place of welcome for all.

“With many such parables He spoke the Word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to His own disciples He explained everything” (Mark 4:32-33).

A parable is a comparison. Literally, it is the casting (βάλλω) of one thing alongside (παρά) another. When Jesus used parables in His teaching, He was illuminating the ways of God by casting them alongside ordinary things in the world. The challenge for the reader/hearer is that the point of comparison is not always obvious or explicit. Jesus “explained everything” privately to His disciples (4:33), but, unfortunately, they did not record everything He said. This has led to a history of interpretation in which readers of the Bible have cast all sorts of ideas alongside some of Jesus’ parables.

The two parables in this week’s text are short and simple. They are also given without explanation, which is where your sermon comes into the picture.

But first, you have a decision to make. You could consider both parables in a single sermon and cast them alongside something they have in common. Both, for instance, describe God’s Kingdom as something mysterious. In the first parable, the mystery is how. In the second, the mystery is how big. In contrast, rather than treating both parables, you might choose one and explore that single comparison by itself. I suggest this second option and would choose the second, the so-called “Parable of the Mustard Seed.”

The question is, what aspect of the reign of God will you throw alongside this little seed that grows into a big tree? Early Church Fathers offer a number of possibilities. Peter Chysologus, the archbishop of Ravenna (circa 380–450), pointed in several directions. He cast the little seed alongside our understanding:

“It is up to us to sow this mustard seed in our minds and let it grow within us into a great tree of understanding reaching up to Heaven and elevating all our faculties; then it will spread out branches of knowledge, the pungent savor of its fruit will make our mouths burn, its fiery kernel will kindle a blaze within us inflaming our hearts, and the taste of it will dispel our unenlightened repugnance.”

Then he cast it alongside Jesus:

“Sown like a mustard seed in the garden of the virgin’s womb, He grew up into the tree of the cross whose branches stretch across the world. Crushed in the mortar of the passion, its fruit has produced seasoning enough for the flavoring and preservation of every living creature with which it comes in contact. As long as a mustard seed remains intact, its properties lie dormant; but when it is crushed, they are exceedingly evident. So, it was with Christ; He chose to have His body crushed.”

Ambrose, the bishop of Milan and teacher of Augustine (circa 333-397), compared the seed to the faith of martyrs:

“So, faith first seems a simple thing; but if it is bruised by its enemies, it gives forth proof of its power, so as to fill others who hear or read of it with the odor of its sweetness. Our martyrs, Felix, Nabor, and Victor, possessed the sweet odor of faith; but they dwelt in obscurity. When the persecution came, they laid down their arms, and bowed their necks, and being stricken by the sword they diffused to all the ends of the earth the grace of their martyrdom.”[1]

Any of these could work. But I suggest casting alongside the tree the Church which comes into being through the proclamation of the Gospel. This Church is not “adequately embodied by an inwardly turned or detached or separated branch.”[2] Instead, this great tree extends into the entire world and provides safety and a home for all people. In this reading, the smallness of the newly gathered band of disciples compares to the smallness of the seed. I imagine Jesus motioning to His little group as He talked. Recall that, unlike the “very large crowd” that had gathered earlier (Mark 4:1), Jesus told this parable to those who were with the twelve (4:10).

 Instead, this great tree extends into the entire world and provides safety and a home for all people.

What might you say to your congregation about the Church? Several thoughts come to mind.

First, the Church is a place of rest and protection. Like a tree that provides a safe haven for the birds of the air to build their nests, the Church is a place for all people to gather in safety. Here you could proclaim Jesus’ promises of forgiveness, welcome, and protection. Of course, in our collective sinfulness neither our congregations nor our church bodies are as welcoming as they should be. You should name this as well and call your congregation to collective repentance. But in Christ, God forgives, and those He forgives He incorporates into His missiological reign. Which means He uses your congregation (and your church body) to increasingly become a place of welcome for all.

Second, the Church is far bigger than any single gathering of believers; be they a congregation or a church body. The mustard tree is “larger than all the garden plants and puts out large branches” (Mark 4:32). In obedience to Jesus’ global missionary command, the disciples and their descendants took the Gospel to the ends of the Earth. So, we can sing:

We thank Thee that Thy Church, unsleeping,
while earth rolls onward into light,
through all the world her watch is keeping,
and never rests by day or night.[3]

The global nature of the Church both comforts and challenges us. The comfort is that the people of God are found in many nations throughout the world. Wherever you go on this planet, you will not be far from its branches. Indeed, where two or three are gathered in the name and around the Word of Jesus, there will be a place of rest. The challenge is there are many Christians who speak different languages and live in diverse cultures. We can never assume the Church’s manifestation in any single culture is the only way in which Christians live together under Christ. This rules out any sort of jingoism which is so common in our current nationalistic climate.

Third, a sermon about the Church (like any sermon) must always be grounded explicitly in and clearly proclaim the work and promise of Jesus. It is tempting in a sermon that focuses attention on the Church to lead toward collective naval-gazing and self-centeredness. But when we keep our eyes on Jesus, and when your sermon proclaims His life-giving promises, He who gives birth to and strengthens the Church will have His proper place.

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Additional Resources:

Craft of Preaching-Check out out 1517’s resources on Mark 4:26-34.

Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in preaching Mark 4:26-34.

Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Mark 4:26-34.

Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!

Lectionary Podcast-Dr. Jeffrey Pulse of Concordia Theological Seminary in Ft. Wayne, IN walks us through Mark 4:26-34.

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[1] For references to all three of these comparisons, see Thomas C. Oden and Christopher A. Hall, eds., Mark (Revised), Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1998. 57-58.

[2] This is Oden and Hall’s summary of Augustine’s view. See Mark (Revised). 57.

[3] “The Day Thou Gavest.” Lutheran Service Book, hymn #886, verse 2.